Ask the Vet: Starting Off Right With Your New Puppy Part II

*This is the second part of animal doc AJ Fox’s answer to a reader’s request for advice on raising a puppy. You can see Part 1 of the post here.

Hi Lindsay,

I’m sure everything is going great with your family’s new addition. By now, you’ve probably gotten the basics (shelter, food, water, PLAY!) down pat. Let’s take a look at what to expect on your puppy’s first visit to the vet. You said you’ve never had a dog before, and I’ll assume this will be your first visit to the vet as well.

When you arrive at the vet, expect to see other animals in the waiting room. Everything will be new to your puppy, and he will either be shy or curious. Keep him on a leash, and if you are sitting in the waiting room, use it as a time to give a few extra pets and bond a little more with your little buddy.

Once you’re taken back to the exam room, a few things will happen.

  1. Your puppy’s history will be taken. This will often be done by a technician, but sometimes by the doctor. You’ll be asked about the puppy’s appetite, thirst, and energy level. Your vet will want to know about your pet’s diet, how potty training is progressing, what treats you are giving him, and what his environment is like. It’s the perfect chance for you to ask questions as well.
  2.  A physical exam will be given. This consists of some objective measurements (heart rate, respiratory rate, weight and temperature) along with subjective findings (Do the lungs sound clear? Does the belly feel normal?) Your vet to your puppy’s’ heart and lungs, palpates his abdomen, looks in his eyes, ears, mouth, under his paws, and examines the “back end” for any potential issues—all to make sure everything looks and sounds the way it should.
  3. Next come the vaccines. There’s a lot of material to cover when it comes to vaccines. Luckily, it’s the veterinarian that needs to know that, not you. You should just be familiar with what your pet receives each visit. Often, when I see a pet for the first time and ask about vaccines already given, the owner’s answer is, “He has all his shots. I don’t know what they are.” Keep a record of the vaccines given. As your puppy grows, keeping an accurate history will allow his future vet to make the best decisions for lifelong health.

Most puppies begin receiving vaccinations at 8 weeks of age. Before a puppy reaches this age, antibodies from the mother’s first round of milk produced—immunity-building “colostrums”—are still present in his body. The immunity provided from this passive transfer lasts until the puppy reaches 6-8 weeks of age. Vaccines administered before this time frame reduces the efficacy of the vaccine, rendering additional protection useless. Be wary of any puppy you acquire that has already been vaccinated. It may not be protected, and your vet will most likely want to start it on a normal vaccination schedule.

Also, be cautious of vaccines you can purchase yourself—usually found at feed stores. Vaccines are fragile, and need to be under constant refrigeration to maintain their effect. Only your vet can guarantee the quality of the vaccine given.

A brief description of the core vaccines (ones every pet needs) and common non-core vaccines (given at a vet’s discretion), as well as the reactions you can expect is listed below.

Core Vaccines

The “Combo”

This vaccine protects against a number of different organisms, but should always include protection against the “Big 3”: Canine Distemper, Adenovirus-2, and Parvovirus. Some combo vaccines also come with Para-influenza, Canine Coronavirus, Leptospirosis or all of these. Just asking for “the combo” vaccine can mean different things to different veterinarians; depending on what combo vaccine they have available. This is why—especially if you are moving or changing veterinarians—you should have an up-to-date copy of your pet’s vaccination history. The combo vaccine typically starts at 8 weeks of age, and is administered every 3-4 weeks until the puppy reaches 16 weeks. After that, it is administered annually.


Not only is this a core vaccine, it is usually required by law. Vaccination starts at 12 to 16 weeks of age, and is boostered one year later. Your pet’s first booster vaccine can be for 1 year or for 3 years. There’s not much difference between the two products, but it is important for legal and tracking purposes to know which vaccine your pet received and when he is next due.

Non-Core Vaccines

Bordatella (Kennel cough)

The bordetalla vaccine is a bit misleading, as it is something called a bacterin. Bordetella is a bacterial organism, and therefore vaccination (typically used for viral pathogens) is not as effective at controlling it. Bacterins are proteins from the bacterial organism itself used to incite the immune response in your pet, which provides immunity/protection. The problem is, these bacterin-induced states of protection usually don’t last as long as those from vaccines to viral agents. Therefore, some veterinarians may recommend twice yearly bordetella vaccination, as protection can last anywhere from 6 months to a year. The good news: bordetalla is very treatable if your pet does contract it. It only tends to be a problem for animals that are boarding at a facility or are otherwise around many other animals for an extended period of time. Usually, clients only request bordetalla vaccination if they are planning on boarding their animals, as many facilities require the vaccination of all the animals they accept prior to their arrival. This vaccine comes in a newer intra-nasal form, which requires just a quick squirt in the nose.

Leptospirosis (lepto)

Another bacterial organism, Leptospirosis, is an atypical type of bacteria called a spirochete. Your pet can pick it up from the saliva and urine from infected wildlife (raccoons, squirrels, possums, etc). Lepto causes acute kidney failure and can be a life-threatening condition if not treated early enough. What’s worse, your pet can infect you if you come into contact with his body fluids before a diagnosis is made. Furthermore, lepto has a number of different “types” of organisms, each of which has specific makeup. There is no one vaccine to help prevent against every different strain of lepto out there. Most lepto vaccines are either 4 in 1 or 6 in 1 (meaning with one injection, there is protection from 4 or 6 of the different known types of lepto). This vaccine is also more associated with vaccine reactions (see below). Usually, you don’t have to worry about your pet being vaccinated for lepto, but ask your veterinarian if you live in an area where the disease has high prevalence (i.e. out in the country) or if you perform activities with your pet that increase their risk of exposure (hiking trails, hunting, etc.).

Vaccine reactions

Most vaccine-related reactions are very mild, and can look like almost anything. Some can be subtle (lethargy, decreased appetite) and are self-limiting (they get better with time). Others are a bit more worrisome, such as swelling or pain at the injection site, hives, redness at injection site, swollen face/muzzle, vomiting, and diarrhea. Some are downright medical emergencies like anaphylactic shock and laryngeal swelling (which makes breathing impossible). Most of the time, some mild lethargy is all you will see. If you notice anything else, it’s time to call your veterinarian or visit your nearest emergency animal hospital. From there, it’s important to make sure it’s noted in your pet’s chart what vaccines were given, and what reaction was seen. For future vaccinations, premedication with an antihistamine or even steroids will likely be administered to prevent or lessen any reactions.

Apart from vaccinations, there are a few other things to be prepared for during your puppy’s first trip to the vet.

Deworming/ Fecal analysis

All puppies are born with some type of intestinal parasites. Some parasites are transferred from the mother to the pups before they are born, and others can be transmitted through the mother’s milk. Most veterinarians will just skip the fecal analysis and deworm your puppy with a typical product. If your puppy has persistent GI signs (diarrhea, especially) looking for a less common parasite that would need a more specialized treatment will likely be recommended. Depending on the product used, you may be asked to medicate your puppy at home a few times in between vaccination visits.

Flea/Tick/Heartworm preventatives

Depending on your veterinarian and the area you live in you may or may not have parasite control products recommended to you. Most of these products are labeled as safe for puppies older than 8 weeks of age, and typically, buying one dose (i.e. 1 month of protection) is a good bet. You’ll be returning in a month anyway for more booster vaccines, and your puppy may be in a different weight category by then. It’s better to wait and see what he needs than buy a dose he has already outgrown. With heartworm testing, if you start your puppy first thing (i.e. at 8 weeks old or so) you may be able to wait to test your pet for heartworms until much later (at about the time his first yearly vaccine boosters are needed). I recommend checking at about 6 months of age, in conjunction with minor anesthetic screening blood-work for spay/neuter surgery.

When to spay/neuter

Unless you purposefully bought your new puppy for breeding purposes, it is highly recommended you spay/neuter your animal. Most practitioners recommend these surgeries when the puppy is close to 4-6 months old, and before their first heat. If you received your animal from a shelter, they are likely already altered, as many sterilization programs perform these procedures on very young animals. Really, the spay/neuter age is one of clinician preference, and you should discuss with your veterinarian when they think your puppy will be fit for anesthesia and surgery.


This is best done during your pet’s first surgery. The needle to insert the microchip is large, and therefore most folks consider it a bit more humane to do this while under anesthesia. Still, it can be done at anytime, depending on the preference of your veterinarian. It involves injecting a small, sterile microchip under the skin of your puppy. The microchip should be scanned before insertion to make sure it works, and to ensure the paperwork for that specific microchip number matches. The chip should be scanned again after insertion to make sure it is in your pet, and not on the table or anywhere else (puppies are quite squirmy). The next step is the most important step. You must REGISTER your chip with the manufacturer. This usually comes with a onetime activation fee to add you and your pet’s information, as well as the matching microchip number to the company’s national database. I can’t tell you how many times I have scanned an animal, found a chip, and—after calling the company—learned that the owners never registered the chip.

Your puppy’s first visit may sound overwhelming, but it really isn’t. Go excited to learn something about your new family member, and let your little buddy know if he’s extra good there’s probably a treat in it for him at the end of the visit.